Chapter 6. Friday: Hill Tribes & Bargaining


Thursday afternoon we went to three different workshops, which they called factories, where they educated us on the processes of jade mining and carving, weaving and extracting silk from silk worms, and making lacquer ware. That night we were treated to a traditional northern Thai dinner, eating out of the same pot. Plus there was some traditional Thai dancing on a stage set above us.

Southeast Asian Hill Tribes

Friday we saw the elephant farms. We went ox cart riding and river rafting. These activities are subsidized by the government to provide employment for the Hill Tribes and to encourage tourism. The Thai government attempts to encourage self sufficiency for the peoples of the Hill Tribes in what ever manner they could. The day before on Thursday we had been taken to a craft show organized by the government to support another Hill Tribe. Rather than attempting to assimilate these tribes through education and work, the Thai government encourages their existence. Another example of Tolerance.

During the decades of the Vietnam War, the Hill Tribes had been encouraged by the CIA and communists to plant and harvest the opium poppy to be converted into heroin, which would be smuggled where it would be needed, yielding huge profits to finance their wars. The various Hill Tribes made so much money during this decades long period that they abandoned their traditional crops in place of the more lucrative opium poppy. The profits were easy and the Hill Tribes were loath to give it up. In the 1999 guide book listing primary sources of income for the Hill Tribes, opium was still listed in the top three for five of the six major Hill Tribes of Thailand.[i]

For the record the Hill Tribes had been using the opium poppy for a cash crop since the late 1200s when Arab traders first brought it to China, during the reign of the Mongol Kublai Khan. The opium poppy thrives on the arid soils of the high lands, being a crop that does well on marginal agricultural land. Further opium has tremendous medical powers, including sedation, which were employed widely by the many cultures of the region. While the CIA/Communist polarity encouraged the expansion of poppy growing, it certainly did not originate it. They had been growing it for centuries before the United States was even a country.

Now however, just after the turning of the millennium, Thailand under international pressure, especially American, is attempting to stop the Hill Tribes from growing a traditional crop. Medical competition from herbs - Stop it wherever it grows - The international war on drugs in some ways is war on the environment. It is a drug war: Pharmaceuticals versus herbal. The poppy war is just another manifestation of the same complex of events. Buy our pills, not their herbs. Big Medicine based upon pills attempts to eradicate herbal remedies

There are between 10 and 20 different Hill Tribes with different languages and customs which live in the mountains of northwest Thailand above Chiang Mai, spreading into Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. They are semi-nomadic, recognizing no boundaries. They belong to no majority anywhere. They move between Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and China, at will. Nobody bothers them because nobody wants to live where they do, the way they do, in the high mountains, in somewhat of a hunter gatherer life style.

Further they don't belong to any country. They belong to their tribes, not to any country. They have only tribal loyalties, not national. Therefore they are not a military threat to any country.

However, so we don't underestimate their significance, there are 343,000 members of the Karen Hill Tribe, the most populous tribe, 111K Hmong, between 31K to 82K for the next four largest Hill Tribes, the Akha, the Lahyu. the Lisu and the Mien (Yao). The Mien Hill Tribe was the one with a craft show that we saw near the Mountain Temple on our first day with Yo. The Karen tribe was the one that was in charge of the elephants. While the Thais, as a whole spoke pretty good English, or at least could communicate pretty well, the members of the Karen tribe, who were in charge of the elephants, seemed to speak no English, or very little.

Hill People at the Night Bazaar

After our first night experience at the Night Market Bazaar with the Thai dancers we returned every night while we were in Chiang Mai. Although we didn’t do any real buying the first night, we were bombarded with natives selling us anything from watches, to material, herbs, statues, food, spirit houses, clothes, and CDs. There were mostly stalls, like in Mexico, at a Farmer's Market in Santa Barbara, or anywhere else that has open market places. However there were also some tiny people, their black hair tucked up into silver headdresses, wearing feathers, thousands of beads, with jewelry in all possible locations, multiple necklaces, bracelets, anklets, earrings - silver with bead work. They were wandering around everywhere, up and down the market place, with children in their arms selling silver beaded bracelets.

"You buy? For your wife? Give you good price! You buy. You buy!"

They were not of Thai descent; they probably belonged to the Akha Hill Tribe. They have resisted assimilation although they are one of the poorest of the tribes, numbering about 50,000. Having come from Tibet they mix animism with ancestor worship, that Sino-Tibetan strain connected to China. They were not of the modern world. When they looked at you, you felt they were seeing a spirit world rather one of sticks and stones. They seemed so innocent - disappointed like a child when you wouldn't buy, rather than discouraged or bitter. In the short time we stayed we saw three different Hill tribes to show how prevalent they were.

Although this description separates the Hill Tribes from the Thai people, Yo assured me that they were considered Thai people just like him, even though they didn't speak Thai, eat Thai food or even have any Thai customs. He said most Thai people, if not all, want to protect the Hill People, not as a separate race but as part of their wonderful environment and culture. Just as they would preserve an old temple, or elephants, they would attempt to preserve the Hill Tribes as part of their collective culture, as part of Thailand. This tolerance is somewhat overwhelming in view of our either-or spiritual and political mentality - Christian or Buddhist, not Christian and Buddhist.

Bargaining in Thailand

At the Night Bazaar there was always bargaining going on. But it was gentle bargaining for fun rather than to take advantage. There was no hostility or aggression involved. No sense of winning and losing. If the sale was made then everyone was happy, nobody lost, everyone won. To give you an example, on our day with the Mien people in their marketplace, Yo led us to one of the vendors who sold Buddhist scrolls, hand painted in Tibet by monks there.

How did these Tibetan scrolls get to these isolated Hill Tribes in northern Thailand? Through Hill Tribe trading connections. It’s all the same mountain range from here in northwest Thailand to Tibet.

Three of the main rivers of this part of the world originate in Tibet, flow down through the Yünnan province in southern China, in what used to be the Thai kingdom of Nam Chao, ‘Lords of the Rivers'. One flows south. This is the Salween River, whose river valley defines Myanmar, i.e. Burma. One flows west. This is the mighty Yangtze, the major river valley of China, one of the major rivers in the world. The third flows to the southeast. This is the Mekong, which helps to define the Southeast Asian subcontinent. The Mekong River originates in Tibet, then moves through China, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia before emptying out into the ocean in Vietnam. Anyway the Hill Tribes traverse the mountain ridges, which are defined by these river valleys as their backyard, their neighborhood.

So Tibet is just up the street in terms of river valleys.

"Take the Mekong River north. Tibet is near the top. You can't miss it."

Tibet is just a few neighborhoods up as a trading partner. While it is northern most limit in the Hill Tribe trading routes, it is directly connected through its mighty Himalayan Rivers. No cars, no bikes, no roads, no boats will take you there. Maybe just a few foot paths, is all there is. And only the Hill Tribes know where they are going.

Laurie bargains for Buddhist scroll

Anyway Laurie wants this Buddhist scroll desperately, but we have just decided to go to Cambodia and she doesn't want to spend too much. He offers it for 5000 baht ≈ $120 which she knows is a fair price, but is out of her range, mentally anyway. She's thinking to herself: "We're splurging to come on the trip; we're splurging extra to go td Cambodia. I can't splurge too much on this scroll."

Aloud to him: "How about 2500 baht?"

He thinks: “Ah she wants it! She has made an offer.” Aloud to her: “4000 and I'll throw in the bell your husband wants." Gesturing to me.

L: "3000?"

Mind you, because these transactions are all done in Thai baht, it can get a little confusing. For instance 5000 Baht seems a lot more than $125 because the number is so big.

Vendor: "3500."

L: "How much do you have on you, Don?"

D: "About 3000."

L: "My husband only has 3000 on him. How about that? That’s all we can spend."

V: "3500, my lowest price."

L: "But we don't have any more than that."

V: "Your guide bring some money to me later, " nodding to Yo.

L: "But we only wanted to spend 3000." And she turns to walk away.

Realizing the sale is about to fail, the old Hill Tribes man says: "Listen if I sell it to you for 3000, I'm going to feel cheated and I’ll feel bad. And if I feel bad, it won’t be good for you either. Pay 3500 and I feel happy and you get the scroll and you will be happy too."

At that point I nodded the go-ahead to Laurie. The vendor was happy. Yo loaned us the difference. My wife was ecstatic. Her hair was standing on end, as if it was electrified. "Before we came, I had a vision of something like this. I knew I had to have it."

The bargaining was to reach a middle ground, the balance point, where everyone felt reasonably happy, but that a sale was definitely made. Once the negotiations started, the only disappointment was when one couldn't find a common ground for making the sale. The satisfaction didn't come from taking advantage of tourists. It came from the success in finding a common ground so that a transaction could occur. It was a balance point where both people were happy. If it was out of balance then neither person, buyer or seller, could be really happy. Knowing that she had taken advantage of the merchant wouldn't really make Laurie happy and would indeed taint the whole sale. Reaching the balance point is not only cultural but good for the whole universe as an equilibrium is reached rather than an imbalance.

Perhaps if international businessmen operated with such thoughts in mind the world wouldn't be quite so messed up by its obsession with greed and winning the most. Instead of the underlying slogan, "Whoever has the most possessions wins." We need to change to the slogan "Whoever is the most balanced wins." The first slogan encourages imbalance by the adjective 'most’ and is exclusive, because only one can have the most. Conversely the second slogan based on balance, is inclusive because balance includes the whole universe. The 'most balanced' person is balancing family, job, community, city, state, country, world. Internal balance is predicated on external balance. We are thrown back into the Kuan Yin insight. Liberation only occurs, when all are liberated. Individual liberation is only an illusion fostered by the cult of the self, which is the biggest illusion of all.

[i]Lonely Planet, 1999, p639


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